Water: Too little, too much
Red River floods are recent memories. Red River Valley droughts are not as immediate in the memory files. The too-muchtoo-little story of water in North Dakota is the reflection of not fully understood changes in wet, dry and “normal” conditions that have asserted themselves throughout the region’s history and prehistory. The historical record also confirms that North Dakota tends to prepare for floods better than for droughts. And make no mistake about it: Sure as the Red River will flood, so too will the weather go bone-dry, and the Red and other rivers will drop to trickles.
It is heartening, therefore, that the pre-statehood dream of moving Missouri River water into eastern and central North Dakota has become substance in the Red River Valley Water Supply project, a proposal that is realistic from an engineering perspective, has funding from the state, and will guarantee a potable water supply when local and regional water sources are stressed in times of drought.
The concept is not new. The old Garrison Diversion Project — derailed decades ago by politics and changing environmental priorities — was an ambitious water delivery system. Indeed, existing elements of the old plan, including a canal, are incorporated into the new project, although a pipeline will be the major feature of the new work. The concept is the same; the methods of realizing the concept have changed.
North Dakota water planners must prepare for extremes: flood and drought. Stimulated by disastrous floods in 1997, 2009 and 2011, flood protection work accelerated and continues at a good clip today. Preparing for a 1930s-style drought, however, has been more planning than doing. Today, even an extended dry spell similar to conditions in the 1980s could be crippling because the cities of the east are larger. Water use has increased considerably and continues to increase.
The plan to move water east from the Missouri is doable and necessary. The good news is that progress is being made.